Slain in the Spirit as a Sacrament?

by Jan 19, 2024Doctrines, Ecclesiology, Uncategorized0 comments

As we saw in the last post, what started as a phenomenon evolved over time to be viewed more as a sacramental experience that could happen during a liturgical practice of laying on hands. This week we will look at the theological reflections among Pentecostal thinkers that follow in this direction. 

So, to understand how being “slain in the spirit” could be understood as a Spirit-initiated sacrament, we need to first look at ideas about Pentecostal sacramentality being put forth today and as well as a descriptive look at Pentecostal liturgy. These two aspects create a framework of thought that gives context and definition for viewing being ‘slain in the Spirit’ as a Spirit-initiated sacrament.  

Pentecostal sacramentality 

In the early 2000’s, James K. A. Smith called for Pentecostals to take seriously traditional sacramental thought and practice. In his essay, “What Hath Cambridge To Do with Azusa Street?”[1] He writes persuasively that the Christological convictions of the Pentecostal movement make a recovery of traditional Christian sacramentality both fitting and necessary. “If undergirding a theology of sacramentality is a fundamental affirmation of the Incarnation (that the Infinite is revealed in and through the finite),” and Smith argues that Pentecostal theology holds to this fundamental affirmation, then Pentecostals “should seek new roles for ‘sacraments’ in Pentecostal worship and spirituality” [2]. These new roles are bound not only to specific sacramental practices but to the question whether Pentecostalism inherently reflects a kind of sacramentality.  

Following Smith’s suggestion, many Pentecostal scholars have begun to see Pentecostalism as inherently sacramental. What they mean is that many of the assumptions in Pentecostalism lean towards a sacramental theology. 

  • They assume God works in a mediated way, and that therefore the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual, are made for each other. 
  • They unconsciously hold to an embodied nature of human life and how it opens one to experience and grounds our otherworldly encounter with God in a tangible and visceral way. 
  • Even their holistic understanding of salvation, particularly seen in how it shapes their view of divine healing, has strongly sacramental assumptions. 

The emphasis in Pentecostal sacramentality then is upon encountering God’s presence and the transformation this encounter brings about. 

Various Means of Grace/Power

Dan Tomberlin insists that Pentecostals can see many practices as being a means of grace by which he indicates such practices as, “means through which believers encounter the Spirit of grace.”[3]  For, “the Spirit is the one who makes the sacraments sacramental”[4]. In this way, the encounter of the divine presence is a sacramental experience, no matter the means through which the experience is mediated. This means that Holy Spirit initiated encounters with God’s power are also encounters with God’s  grace. One reason for this connection is that God’s grace and God’s power are inseparable in the economy of the kingdom. His grace is seen as effectual and His power is always understood as graciously endowed, no matter how demure or demonstrative the encounter.    

With the Spirit of Grace as central, Pentecost becomes the paradigmatic metaphor for a Pentecostal sacramentality with the altar as the focal place coupled with Christ’s priestly ministry.[5] Tomberlin highlights the role of the altar and theological function of Christ’s priesthood to argue that through Christ the High Priest and the activity of the Spirit of Grace, the sacraments are more than mere reenactments or memorials to God’s redemptive acts; the baptismal water, the bread and wine, and the anointing oil and the ministry of prayer with laying on hands become mediatory gifts. [6]

The Locus of Grace 

It is in the act that the Spirit of Grace is active. Thus, it is in the action of ‘washing,’ ‘baptizing’, ‘praying’ that the Spirit of grace is active. To clarify, It is in the act not the human agent or the physical elements that the “grace” is present. As the old preacher would say “God is in the doing”.  The benefit of the locus of grace being in the action not the person has profound implications. When grace is viewed as residing in the act itself, it protects against a common assumption that often follows those who have the manifestation follow their ministry. The assumption is that because the manifestation can follow certain ministries, it is the minister that is the agent of grace. I call it the “man of power” problem. Of course, everybody acknowledges that the Spirit is the source of power, but the Holy Spirit’s ‘chosen vessel’ always becomes the particular leader. Such manifestations become signs of a great anointing or that the leader possesses a profound spiritual authority. It is almost never seen as a sign of sacramental grace given by the will of the Spirit. The Implication of the “man of God” problem is that it can become toxic especially when people begin to follow the leader blindly. In the most extreme cases ministries end up resembling the practice of witch doctors rather than resembling the character of Christ. (I am thinking particularly of the BBC documentary on TB Joshua).

Faith as the Necessary Element 

When grace is seen in the act not the element (bread, water, laying on hands) or the agent (person) the role of faith becomes important. One of the early Protestant reformers explains that “by themselves [sacraments] profit nothing, yet God has designed them to be the instruments of his grace; and he effects by the secret grace of his Spirit, that they should not be without benefit in the elect.” [7] 

This encapsulates what the many Protestant (including some pentecostals) call the sacramental union between the sacrament’s outward sign and its spiritual reality. Essentially, this concept tells us that when the sacraments are received in faith, God graciously works through them to accomplish His purposes in those who trust in the Lord. Sacraments are not bare testimonials of our faith, even though they do testify to faith. Instead, the sacraments are primarily about God and what He does. They reveal His promises visibly and convey His benefits when we receive them in faith. So If a sacrament is a sign whose reality happens through the sign’s signification, received in faith. So that in the act we are responding by faith to the Spirit. “we come in response to the prompting of the Spirit; we come in the Spirit, and in coming, we are graced by the Spirit” [8].  

Graced by the Spirit through faith means that it is the faith in action that is effective. So that in the ‘doing’ of the practice the mediation of grace is conditioned by the operation of faith and the will of the Holy Spirit and not the agency of man. 

Pentecostal liturgy 

Albrecht and Howard in the Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism identify three macro-rite that make up a Pentecostal liturgy. The first is worship and praise, the second is ministry of the Word and gifts and  “the third macro-rite is the altar service. This portion of the service functions as a rite that calls for the response of the people and provides an opportunity for those who wish to have their needs met in a tangible way.…. Pentecostals make use of the altar area, or front section of the sanctuary, as a sacred space where conversion, reconciliation, healing, deliverance, and other forms of “doing business with God” are transacted.“[9]

Vondey has also contended that the altar call is indeed the heart of the Pentecostal liturgy. [10] For Vondey the altar liturgy forms the practical framework for the theological motifs of the gospel in its fullness: 

“The altar is the holy and anointed habitation of God, the place of Christ’s sacrifice, the presence of the Word of God and of the Holy Spirit, instrument of evangelization and the proclamation of the gospel, the anxious bench of the sinner, [the site of] public confession of faith, [the source of] invitation for baptism, [the] gift of sacramental worship, [the home for] the eucharistic table, fellowship and revival of the faithful, [and the] anointing of the church…”[11]

The sacramental context extends particularly to the altar time. It is fitting that the altar call invites worshippers to move to the space where the Spirit’s “moving” is recognized.  All that happens at the altar is not just sacred but sacramental. At the alter, the sacramental work of the Holy Spirit is a “free, dynamic, and unpredictable move of the Spirit” [12].  Thus within this view of the Spirit’s sacramental liberty an expanded view of the sacraments includes alter activity 

“As the service moves to a time of response around the altar, it is common to see Pentecostals laying a hand on another as an expression of the ministry of healing. A person receiving prayer might experience being “slain in the Spirit” in which his or her body weakens and God is encountered more directly. What makes these individual practices or rites particularly “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” is that they are perceived as anticipations of or responses to the active presence of the Holy Spirit“ [13]

Slain in the Spirit as a sacrament 

Many in the early days of the movement connected the two ideas in a rudimentary way. All they meant by ‘sacrament’ is a visible sign of an inward grace/work of God. It is a bit on the nose but many would say that being, “Slain in the Spirit”  was an outward sign that God is doing an inward work of Grace. This is all many mean when many call it a sacrament.  

Yet a more robust view can be explained. Within the liturgical context of the alter time one can understand spontaneous works of the Spirit mediated through a practice such as laying on hands with praying to potentially come with an unexpected work of the Spirit of Grace. The physical evidence (falling) constitutes the sign and the grace received is the thing signified, so that being “slain in the spirit” becomes the evidence of a special grace given by the will of the Spirit. Through the lens of a sacramental theology, being slain in the Spirit is understood as a sign of the active presence of the Spirit of grace, to confer a blessing on a believer for the good of the individual, by the will of the Spirit. 

Practical considerations 

The uninitiated might be asking what the formalized practice looks like.  Here is a rough description of the modern ‘formalized’ practice seen in a sacramental way. A minister invites people in the audience, often during a revival, healing meeting, or at the end of a worship service to come to the altar for prayer.  People come forward for prayer for some kind of healing or “blessing.” People wanting to be prayed for form a line. The minister or prayer team member “lays hands on them” while praying for them. The person being prayed for receives by faith  whatever the Holy Spirit wishes to Impart. As the Spirit wills, a special grace is imparted for the good of the believer and glory of God, signified by the one receiving prayer being overwhelmed in some way. Often they fall straight backwards without bending their knees; usually the person does not crumple to the floor (Although I have seen that too).   

What many have a problem with seems to be the formalization of the phenomenon that comes from the use of orderly protocols.  The formalization allows it to happen in an orderly way and if God so chooses to add his grace to the prayer of blessing, so be it. When humans have a formula they tend to squeeze the Spirit out of the ritual. What is left is little more than blind ritualism. This is why the reformers put such a heavy emphasis on receiving by faith. In truth, such an accusation is a danger in all sacramental practices, it need not be singled out when it comes to being slain in the Spirit.  

If I am honest, without a clear command from scripture, I hesitate to consider it normative. That does not mean I write it off. A quote attributed to Aimee Semple McPherson is helpful, “Don’t blaspheme the sacrament you don’t understand.” That’s good advice. Almost every Christian tradition has some “sacrament” that outsiders will consider weird. Personally, infant baptism is not my cup of tea. It seems absolutely counterintuitive and outside the point of the practice especially given the claims being made about what is happening. It’s just weird to me. Or the time I visited an Eastern Orthodox church, where during the invocation to worship I was met with a shroud of smoke and incense as a priest walked to the altar. He was swinging and bopping a censor that was puffin’ and billowing smoke. Priest was good. He wasn’t just swinging back-and-forth. He was going over his head sideways, bouncing it off his elbow. I was honestly waiting to see him do a front flip into a split, like some martial arts expos.  Again not my cup of tea, but both are perfectly legitimate practices within the larger tent of Christianity. We can debate the theology of them all day, but I am not pulling the “stop immediately” cord and get off the bus screaming ‘heresy’.  Why? Because I don’t blaspheme the sacrament I don’t understand.



[1] James K.A. Smith,. “What Hath Cambridge To Do with Azusa Street? Radical Orthodoxy and Pentecostal Theology in Conversation.” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25 2003, (1): 97–114.

[2] James K.A. Smith,. “What Hath Cambridge To Do with Azusa Street?” 113

[3] Dan Tomberlin,. Pentecostal Sacraments: Encountering God at the Altar. Cleveland: Center for Pentecostal Leadership and Care. 2010 87

[4] Gordon T. Smith, Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three. (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity. 2017) 92

[5] Dan Tomberlin,. “Believer’s Baptism in the Pentecostal Tradition.” The Ecumenical Review 67 (3) 2015: 423–35. 

[6] Dan Tomberlin,. Pentecostal Sacraments: Encountering God at the Altar. Cleveland: Center for Pentecostal Leadership and Care. 2010 87

[7] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, Chapter 4

[8] Gordon T. Smith, Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three. (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity. 2017) 92 

[9] Daniel E. Albrecht and Evan B. Howard, ”Pentecostal Spirituality” in The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism (Cambridge Companions to Religion) Edt. Cecil M. Robeck, Jr. and Amos Yong, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2014) 380

[10] Wolfgang Vondey,. “The Theology of the Altar and Pentecostal Sacramentality.” In Scripting Pentecost: A Study of Pentecostals, Worship and Liturgy, edited by Mark J. Cartledge and A. J. Swoboda,(Aldershot: Ashgate. 2016)  94–107.

[11] Wolfgang Vondey, Pentecostal Theology: Living the Full Gospel. Systematic Pentecostal and Charismatic Theology 1 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark. 2017) 57

[12] Wolfgang Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda. Pentecostal Manifestos (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2010) 135

[13] Daniel E. Albrecht and Evan B. Howard, ”Pentecostal Spirituality”  380